Courtesy of Kenny Millions
Hum Ha Records
FIRESIDE CHAT WITH KENNY MILLIONS (KESHAVAN MASLAK)
I have never talked to someone quite as outspoken as Kenny Millions,
once known as Keshavan Maslak. Whatever he is Millions is two things,
honest and one hell of a saxophone player. He plays other instruments
too, but they are of little interest to me. His resume is impressive,
including Paul Bley, Charles Moffett, Misha Mengelberg and Han Bennink,
easily proving my point. He is about as anti-establishment as possible
and that just wins him over more in my book. He does it all on his own,
own label, own club, own website, own way. I like. I welcome you to our
conversation, brilliantly played unedited and in his own words.
JUNG: Let's start from the beginning.
MILLIONS: I'm from Detroit. I was born in Detroit. I was classically trained,
all the way through high school and in college also. But in high school,
growing up in the city of Detroit, Motown, downtown Detroit and going
to high school there and it was an integrated high school. A lot of my
friends turned me onto Cannonball Adderley, John Coltrane, Miles Davis,
etcetera. They would take me to local jazz clubs in Detroit during the
Sixties. There was a lot of them at the time. Yusef Lateef was a regular
there. He lived there and these kinds of people, Joe Henderson. So as
a kid, my friends, my black friends would take me to these black clubs
and I really dug the music right away. I heard Yusef Lateef and they even
took me to hear early Miles Davis and all that stuff. So I got turned
onto it and I just wanted to play that because I always felt that jazz
music was more expression of the individual spirit, whereas classical
music, where I was trained in was more confined and rigid and you had
to play the composers just the way it was written and I didn't want to
spend my life playing in a symphony orchestra for the rest of my life
playing parts. I had something else in me, a voice in me, wanting to come
out and be free and express my inner feelings. Jazz was the music for
When did the saxophone come into play?
MILLIONS: Well, I started playing the saxophone when I was six or seven
years old and then in high school, I got into the flute, but clarinet
and sax initially. I grew up in Motown and a lot of my friends were part
of the Motown scene and doing gigs with them too, backing up Temptations
and Diana Ross. All these people went to my high school. So we would all
play together behind these people before they were famous. This is in
the Sixties when Motown was just starting to break in the mid-Sixties.
I graduated high school in 1965, so it was around that time that Motown
was really starting to take off. Also, my influence is very much Motown,
R&B influence, because I was right there doing that at the same time.
It wasn't as if this country was at an enlightened summit during the Sixties
and you went to an integrated high school.
MILLIONS: I think being a musician, you always had, my perception of things,
I didn't want the same old thing all the time. I didn't want the clichés
in life. Things artistic within me saved me from being the nine to five
worker and living in the suburbs. So the music created an intense desire
to learn and find out about the world. I was hearing this music and I
was wondering where it was coming from. How the hell were they doing it?
When I heard Cannonball's records or John Coltrane or even Roland Kirk
playing three saxes at once, I was wondering, "How the hell does
he do that?" It wasn't written down. It's hard for a classical musician
to understand if it's not notated. They're just improvising and it sounded
so beautiful. It was a curiosity for me. The Sixties, of course, was a
revolutionary time in America and things were busting open anyways with
the Civil Rights Movement and all of that. It is just part of that wave
at the time.
How did you end up in New York?
MILLIONS: I went to high school at North Texas State University, near
Dallas, Texas from 1966 to 1970 and I got a gig on the road and that took
me to San Francisco and I lived there for two years, through '70 and '72
and I was touring a lot at the time with different R&B bands and blues
bands and jazz gigs. I met Charles Moffett in San Francisco and started
playing with him. He had a studio where a lot of young musicians would
come, David Murray and Arthur Blythe. He kind of took us under his wing.
He had a studio in Oakland actually. He would organize concerts all the
time in his studio and then Moffett got a gig to play the Newport Jazz
Festival in New York City in 1972 and so he took me with him to New York
in 1972, I think July of 1972, to play the Newport Jazz Festival and so
I decided to stay in New York from '72. I just lived there at that time.
I just moved to New York.
FJ: The height of New York's loft scene was during the Seventies, how
much of that was a factor?
MILLIONS: Absolutely, that was the real loft scene. Now, it's a bunch
of bullshit if you ask me with the Knitting Factory and all of that.
Let's come back to the Knit.
MILLIONS: Yeah, OK, Fred, the loft scene was very vital from the early
to the late Seventies. A lot of great music was happening and a lot of
people had lofts. Sam Rivers had a great loft. I was playing, in fact,
when I first came to New York, Charles introduced me to Sam Rivers and
Sam hired me to play, he had kind of a small winds group. I was playing
with Sam at the time in '72 and '73. He had a loft, which was one of the
happening lofts in New York at the time. It was called Studio Rivbea and
I think he did it until like the mid-Eighties when he couldn't afford
the rent anymore. But that was a loft. There were so many lofts, the Kitchen,
a performance space in SoHo.
Soundscape was one.
KENNY MILLIONS: The Soundscape, right. That was like the later Seventies.
Soundscape was by Hell's Kitchen if I remember. I played all the places.
In fact, Fred, I had my own performance on the Lower East Side on East
6th Street. I had a storefront and I would organize my own concerts there.
It was a very vital time in New York. There was a lot of activity, a lot
of great music being created and performed. It was the start of the real
new music scene or the downtown music scene or whatever you want to call
it. Of course, New York had the Sixties thing with Ornette and Albert
Ayler and those cats, but this was a further extension of that where it
really started taking off.
FJ: Why did the growth come to a dead halt in the Eighties?
MILLIONS: (Laughing) Well, you know, Fred, it's like any other major city
in the world, the landlords get greedier and the property values go up
and artists are, of course, the first ones to get kicked out. SoHo in
New York is a very trendy, only rock stars live there now in these lofts
because they're the only ones that can afford it. But at the time, you
could get a loft, this was thirty years ago, in SoHo for like two hundred
bucks a month for five thousand square feet. The artists started a trend.
That was a place where they could get a cheap space, play their music,
have their own concerts. It was just warehouses. There were all these
warehouses, like over a hundred year old warehouses in Manhattan and artists
would do their things there, open art galleries, loft concerts, you name
it, just a vital movement. It started getting more and more trendy. People
from the Upper East Side, Upper West Side started to go downtown to go
slumming with the artists and the money people started going downtown
to hang out and realized that they wanted to be hip too and all the Yuppies
started coming down and the people from Long Island and whatever. They
wanted to come down thinking we want to be cool artists too and daddy's
going to pay our rent and so the landlords started jacking up the rent
and all the artists got pushed out. Sam got pushed out. I left I got pushed
out in '86 because it started getting to be too much for me. There wasn't
any vital music scene happening like there was in the Seventies. It all
started dying and becoming more commercialized, even in the jazz world
and the free jazz world. It started getting more commercialized and a
couple of people get all the gigs. It changed a lot. As the property value,
the real estate value started skyrocketing in New York City, these neighborhoods
like the Lower East Side, where I lived and SoHo, now, the Lower East
Side, you can get a closet for like two thousand a month if you're lucky.
Just the Yuppies can afford that. They remodeled the buildings. I suppose
it's cleaner now. New York has really changed and for me, it's not the
vital scene anymore. It is still a great city. You can have fun there
and go shopping and go to some nice restaurants, but as far as the music,
it is further diversified now. It used to be Mecca, years ago, but it's
no longer Mecca, because the world has become a smaller place and the
musicians have diversified so it is not necessary to live in Mecca anymore
because you can find great music and great musicians anywhere in any city
in the world.
FJ: As stagnant as New York has become, it is merely a sign of the times.
MILLIONS: Yes, this is very true, Fred. It is a sign of the times. The
music is very stagnant there because everything has to become commercialized
for people to exist there. There is no such thing as getting paid in New
York. Everything is a door gig. This is ridiculous. But the musicians
feel they have to do it. They have to play in New York because it's New
York. I know people that drive from Florida just to play at the Knitting
Factory for the door. It's ridiculous. It's absurd because the owner of
the Knitting Factory is getting rich and these musicians are still chasing
the magic dream, the carrot dangled in front of their nose. They're still
thinking that they have to play the Knitting Factory and it is going to
give them their big break, which is a bunch of bullshit.
A generation has been born into a period where there's been no innovation
in improvised music. It is no wonder there is nothing to talk about in
jazz. There isn't anything worth the time.
MILLIONS: That's true. In my own personal experience, I saw it dying in
the, as far as the innovation, in the Seventies, it was still happening.
There was a lot of hope, even for young musicians like myself at the time.
There was gigs to be had. There was European tours that paid you money
and there was concerts around America that paid money and there was a
vital scene in the Seventies. So there was an interest in it. The critics
were into it. You could get a write up in the Village Voice and the New
York Times. It was a real happening scene. Now, I would say since the
late Seventies, early Eighties, it really started changing as far as my
perception of it. There's still great musicians out there. There's still
people that are trying to do things, but you don't really see them or
hear about them. There's very few venues that they can perform at. So
it's become a very limited thing, down to a few people, a few handful
of people that get all the gigs.
FJ: So you left Mecca.
MILLIONS: Well, I was getting burned out. I was touring a lot. When I
was younger I was going to Europe every other month. That kind of saved
me, but I didn't want to live in a closet for the rest of my life. As
you get older, you want to relax a little bit more, have a little bit
more comfort. That's only natural to the human existence. So therefore,
I didn't want to end up like, I used to call them New York stories. I'd
see these old people, like old burnout artists that would live in my building
and you could tell at one time, they were really into something and now,
they're just old and crotchety and no one gives a shit about them anymore.
And you could tell that they were just living in their memory of the Fifties
or the Sixties or whatever and they're just getting more pitiful looking.
I didn't want to end up like that. I didn't want to be another New York
story, become a pitiful guy, lonely guy in the hallway, walking around
and saying how the world doesn't appreciate me and doesn't understand
me and doesn't give me respect. So I wanted to change my life because
I didn't want to end up like that. It's very easy to end up like that
in New York City. You get so attached to that excitement and the dream
of actually getting respect and getting exposure and making it that you
get caught up in this fantasy that you might be eighty years old and you're
still thinking about it. I didn't want to end up like that because I think
that's a very sad story.
FJ: But why Florida?
MILLIONS: I figured by that time, I was already touring Europe a lot.
I had been to Japan and all that stuff and getting my reputation going
in those countries. I thought that it wasn't necessary for me to live
in New York anymore. The real good concerts, the concerts that paid me
good money were in Europe or in Japan, so I could live anywhere, right?
So why should I live in New York in a closet that's getting more and more
expensive every month? So I thought I could live anywhere, so I just picked
Florida because I enjoyed swimming and I enjoyed being outside and I enjoyed
healthy things and figured that if I'm down in Florida, I could swim everyday.
I basically swim everyday.
FJ: So you are doing the things.
MILLIONS: Yeah, I enjoy myself. I can relax. I have a decent life. I'm
happily married. I have a nice house. I run my own business. So I have
a decent life and I feel like a decent human being instead of some sort
of burnout cockroach in a closet in New York. I got afraid, Fred. I did
not want to end up like a loser. It's so easy, being a musician. I've
seen so many of my friends burnout. Half of my friends are dead or are
crazy by now. Out of the ones that survived, there is probably ten percent
that I can even talk to, that are not completely insane or dead. So I've
seen in my own personal life and in my own struggles to be an artist,
I've seen what it can do to you if you don't watch out. It's a very addictive
drug, having a career is a very addictive drug that is very destructive
if you are not careful. So I had to re-evaluate and analyze my situation
and decide that I wanted to be around for quite a while playing music
and I don't want to have a short life and they're talking about me ten
years after I'm dead. I don't give a shit about that. I want to still
be playing for a long time. I want to still be working when I'm ninety-five
FJ: You're basking in the Florida sunshine. You're swimming in the ocean
everyday. You are relaxing and enjoying life's pleasures on your own terms.
Why bring on tax of starting a label?
MILLIONS: There is reasons why I do that also. Ultimately, it is artistic
freedom, Fred. I still play the label game once in a while. I still have
some contacts with certain labels that I negotiate with from time to time,
but I'm not dependent on them. I enjoy my independence to do everything
that I want to do. Through my experience of different labels, they always
no matter if it's in free jazz or jazz, they always are going to give
their opinion as far as what songs you should do or how you should comb
your hair. Their opinion is involved because they're the record producer
and ultimately, they want to sell records too right? That's just the nature
of survival, is to sell records. They don't want to keep losing money.
So they want you to play this song or hire this guy to play with you because
we can sell more records. In jazz or free jazz especially, what can you
say? You can't sell more then two or three thousand copies of anything
if you're very lucky. That's the most you can sell, but still, they want
to have their power trip and I resent the power trip. At this point in
my life, and being through what I've been through, I don't want nobody
telling me what I should do or who I should do it with. I have a lot of
tapes, old tapes in the drawer, something I just finished with me and
Charles Moffett from 1981. I'm negotiating with a couple companies and
if that doesn't work out to my satisfaction and I don't like the deal,
I'll just put it out myself (laughing).
FJ: You re-released Humanplexity with Misha Mengelberg and Han Bennink.
MILLIONS: Well, Humanplexity was Leo Records first recording in 1979.
I started his label. Him and I had a big falling out. He contacted me
in 1979. I was living in Amsterdam and I was playing with Han and Misha
at that time. We were working a lot in Europe and I was living there.
Leo heard about us and he was living in London and he came over and he
wanted to record us. He was starting this record label and I said that
we would be his first date and so we were his first date. That was on
LP for a couple of years and then, in the Eighties, for some weird reason,
it's a personal thing between him and me, he decided to kill the recording
and not have it on his catalog. And I think it's a very good recording,
but for some strange reason, that I still don't understand, he killed
it in the Eighties. So I said, "What the hell, I don't need him.
I don't need anyone." I re-mastered it. I didn't have the tape. I
took the LP, my one and last copy of the LP and with today's technology,
I converted it to CD, a digital CD. I do the mastering myself on my computer
and worked on it for a couple of weeks and it was really hard because
there were a lot of scratches and pops in it, noises and so I worked on
mastering it for a couple weeks on my home computer and redid it, which
I'm glad I did.
FJ: Junko's Dream is another find.
MILLIONS: Yeah, that's a good one with Paul (Bley). That's another one
that originally came out on Leo, but him and I have fallen out so he doesn't
do shit for me and he's killing my recordings. My opinion is it's the
artist that owns the music. The record company might own that particular
tape, but they don't own the soul of the music, the artist does. So I
feel that I have the freedom to do anything with my music that I want.
It's my music. It's my compositions. It's my music that I sweat and labored
over and put my soul into. No jive ass producer is going to kill my hard
work over all these years, Fred. This is another subject. It is crucial
for me that artists take more responsibility for their careers and for
their destiny. This is one way for me to do it. Standing up for your rights
as an artist because it's become so lopsided now where the middlemen control
everything. The Knitting Factory controls everything. They can dictate
that they aren't going to pay you and that you have to play for the door.
But they line up around the block with their tongs hanging out asking,
"Can we please pay for the door? Please let me play at your great
Knitting Factory." And the record companies do the same. "We
don't need you. We've got ten thousand others just like you and younger
than you and they don't want anything. So what do you mean when you say
you want two thousand dollars for this date and I've got this fool over
here that wants to do it for free?" It's very important, Fred, as
far as attaining artistic respect. There is very little artist respect
that you feel from record producers, critics, the media, concert promoters,
agents. Usually, they're on top of you. You're kissing up to them constantly.
And I refuse to play that game.
FJ: You have essentially been blackballed by the media.
MILLIONS: When I was in New York and I will just give you a couple of
examples, Fred. When I was in New York in the Seventies, you know Stanley
MILLIONS: Well, Stanley's a friend of mine and we used to hang out together
in New York when David (Murray) first came there and I was a friend of
David's from California. So Stanley and David and me would hang out together
on the Lower East Side and I got to become pretty friendly with Stanley.
He was just new in New York. He was a writer and a drummer. He was saying
that I played good, but I can't write about you. I say, "Fuck you,
Stanley. We're still friends." But that's how it is. It's a business.
So they've got to do what they've got to do. He's got to write about who
he's got to write about to keep the books and magazines sold. They don't
want some white boy that will blow his black idol off the stage. I don't
mean to sound racist or nothing. I'm just talking about reality, as far
as my reality of what I experienced.
FJ: The reality is that European innovators like Peter Brotzmann, who
has been every bit as influential, if not more than most of his American
counterparts, does not get nearly press that a Keith Jarrett receives.
MILLIONS: This is true. Well, you've seen the history of Jazz just last
month right, the history according to Wynton Marsalis and his mafia. You
think they're going to put someone like me on that program to talk about
the history of jazz. They're a lot of great musicians out there that know
more than Marsalis, but he has the image. He's from New Orleans and he
has the right this guy and that guy backing him. He's got the right image
to sell records, the right front. The industry and the critics are always
looking for the right image. The people that control the industry are
the critics. Someone told me a long time ago in New York, "If you
want to become famous, just get friends with Gary Giddins." (Laughing)
I said, "I'm sorry. I just can't kiss ass." I'm not going to
do it. I'm not going to kiss anybody's ass. I have enough self-respect
and pride not to play that game. I'm very anti-social, a very private
person. I never did drugs. I was very anti-social as far as they're concerned.
I don't play the game and kiss up to them, which they expect. So if you
kiss up to the mafia, which are controlled by the critics and the few
musicians they deem important, then you're not going to get exposure.
You're not going to get the recognition. That's just the way it is. It's
set up that way. It's set up to sell magazines. It's set up to sell records.
It's set up to make business. They told Louie Armstrong when he came back
to New Orleans with Jack Teagarden, "Make sure and not have Jack
Teagarden in your band. He's white." That was Louie Armstrong and
so he said, "Fuck you. I'm never going to play in this town."
So that's the way the business is. It's always has been that way and it's
more so like that. If people think that free jazz or jazz is any different
they're crazy. They're all this commercialization, all the games are within
the jazz world too. It is just the same as the pop world. It is just on
a much smaller level. There is so much less money to fight over, but still,
they're fighting over it and killing each other for a couple of little
door gigs. I don't play the game. That's one reason why I left New York.
I got tired of the game. I figure Florida, there is no culture here. It's
a nice place to live and it's healthy. It's 82 degrees today and it's
February. There is no music scene. It's like bar mitzvah scene and I don't
do that. But I enjoy it because I'm aloof. I'm detached from the same
old bullshit. I just want to play music and do my music and not have anyone
tell me how I should do it.
FJ: Does it agree with you that Wynton, nowhere near an innovator in jazz,
is rewriting the history of the music?
MILLIONS: It pisses off most musicians that have been around. They think
he's just an arrogant prick, which he is (laughing). He's obviously had
all the breaks. He's never had to drive taxicabs. He's never had to really
pay dues and play clubs dates. He had the right credentials, from the
New Orleans scene, from his father. He had all the right credits behind
him. They needed a new Miles Davis. So they found their boy. I think it
pisses off most musicians that are of an older generation. The ones I
talk to just can't stand him and can't stand listening to him. It is such
a limited perspective. I'm not taking anything away from his talent. He's
obviously very talented at copying everybody, but he really doesn't have
his own voice. He's the godfather now and so therefore, you have to play
it according to his rules or you're not going to make it in the New York
scene. He's the head of the jazz scene there.
What the hell is a hum-ha horn?
MILLIONS: It's my little invention in the Seventies when I was living
in the New York scene during the heavy avant-garde thing. I put together
a valve trombone, trumpet bell, and a saxophone mouthpiece. It was three
instruments in one and it's on that Humanplexity record. It has a very
low, wild sound and then it has a very high sound. It has no midrange
what so ever. It's a very strange instrument (laughing). I don't play
it anymore. It just collects dust. It was part of my time in the Seventies
in New York. It kind of represented that. It is a very avant-garde thing.
I used to put these sparklers on it and children's toys and I would turn
off the lights and it would come to life. It was a whole light show going
FJ: Don't you think you risk becoming a jack of all trades and master
KENNY MILLIONS: I try not to play too many things. When you go to music
school in college, they try and teach you different instruments because
they try and make you a music teacher. So I had basic knowledge with percussion
instruments and string instruments because you had to learn that. I used
to work as a drummer too because my brother was a drummer. So I still
play drums and once and a while I'll play a gig on drums. But I don't
consider that a serious instrument. I've messed with them.
FJ: What is your serious instrument?
MILLIONS: Saxophone, clarinet, and flute are quite serious instruments,
that I take seriously and really practice. Everything else is just some
nuances, just some garnish on the plate (laughing). But I try not to get
too hung up with that. When I was playing with Han, I was picking up everything.
I've kind of lost appetite for that right now. I would rather just be
a good musician and keep myself together on my main instrument.
FJ: You have a particular torn in your side about the Knit.
MILLIONS: (Laughing) He's an entrepreneur of exploiting musicians. He's
been great at it. It's the typical story. It's so typical of the middleman
story, getting rich and famous on the backs of musicians and artists.
He's clever. That's what Leo does too. That's why he has so many releases
out. He doesn't pay anybody, but they all beg to be on his label. These
middlemen, they are in control. They have all the power. The musicians,
it's half their fault. I'm not going to blame it on just these guys. It's
a fifty-fifty deal here. It's fifty percent the musicians' faults for
allowing themselves to be exploited. I played the Knitting Factory in
1997. I was invited there, my friend just died, Sergey Kurokhin died and
they were having a Kurokhin memorial and festival at the Knitting Factory
in New York at the beginning of '97. The organizer flew me up from Florida,
provided for me. He paid for me to come up there. That was a private sponsorship.
So I came up to do that. So I checked out the scene then and thought it
was a huge operation. He's got like a hundred people working for him and
a thousand musicians kissing up to him and these guys fly in from around
the world just to play there. This guy was a clever hustler. I should
learn something from him as far as how to hustle. This guy has pulled
some shit over their eyes. It's pitiful. I saw how the musicians behaved
there. They were acting like this was the Carnegie Hall of the new music
scene. I was just thinking that this was some stupid loft that wasn't
even around in the Seventies. I was playing the real lofts, where the
real music was at and where the musicians used to get paid. No one was
kissing no one's ass because everyone was independent and the musicians
used to run the lofts not the businessmen. I said this is pitiful. I'm
never ever going to be involved with this bullshit again. I don't care
who tells me what and one thing I don't need is a door gig at this point
in my life.
Fred Jung is the Editor-In-Chief and has a hitman looking for Martha Stewart.
Comments? Email Him